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Men’s language, women’s language January 8th, 2017 by

In most countries, men and women have different styles of speaking. But is it possible for a community to have two completely different languages, one for men and one for women, not just for one generation, but sustained for a long time?

caribbeanIf such diglossia (a dual language system) is possible, imagine the decisions one would have to make while engaging with such a community. Makers of educational videos might have to make two soundtracks for a single community. An agricultural extensionist would have to choose which language to use for a talk.

caribbean-lesser-antillesAs strange as it may seem, at least one society did come close to having two, gender-based languages, which were spoken over several generations.  In the 17th century, the people of the Caribbean Island of Dominica told a story that they said took place some generations before the coming of the Europeans, when the islands of the Lesser Antilles had been inhabited by people who spoke an Arawak language. Then the islands were attacked by canoe-loads of men who spoke a Carib language. The invaders killed the local men, and then settled down with the women.

The two languages were extremely different, but the children born after the invasion grew up speaking both of them. All children learned the Arawak language of their mothers, but when the boys became teenagers they started spending more time with the men, and began to speak Carib among themselves. The Islanders developed a version of Carib that became a language for men only.

In 1665, Father Raymond Breton, a French missionary, published a two-volume dictionary of the language then spoken on the islands of Dominica and St. Vincent. The dictionary specified whether each word was used by men, or by women.

Various scholars have questioned the historical accuracy of the Carib invasion story. It is possible that the men’s language originated through trade or migration.  We will never know if Carib men of the 13th century once rampaged across the island beaches, murdering Arawak men and capturing women. There is no historical or archaeological evidence for (or against) this story. Yet the linguistic data are well documented. There is no doubt that in the 1650s, over much of the Lesser Antilles, men and women spoke in two remarkably different codes. The two genders used the same sounds, and most of the same grammar, but men’s words were from Carib, and women’s words were from Arawak. (The men could speak the women’s language, and would speak it when socializing with women. The men’s language was only used between men).

If you could time travel to the Island of Dominica in the 17th century, and were able to speak the full range of men’s and women’s languages, a talk with the whole community would sooner or later switch to the women’s language, because it was everyone’s first tongue.

In agricultural extension today, sometimes it helps to create a space where women can easily speak up, so that their concerns can be addressed. It is easy to start to think that men and women are very different, but it is also worth remembering that in some ways we are the same, and that language can unite us.

Further reading

Allaire, Louis 1980 “On the Historicity of Carib Migrations in the Lesser Antilles.” American Antiquity 45(2):238-245.

Boucher, Philip P. 2009 Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs, 1492–1763. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Davis, Dave D. and R. Christopher Goodwin 1990 “Island Carib Origins: Evidence and Nonevidence.” American Antiquity 55(1):37-48.

Taylor, Douglas 1954 “Diachronic Note on the Carib Contribution to Island Carib.” International Journal of American Linguistics 20(1):28-33.

Taylor, Douglas R. and Berend J. Hoff 1980 “The Linguistic Repertory of the Island-Carib in the Seventeenth Century: The Men’s Language: A Carib Pidgin?”  International Journal of American Linguistics 46(4):301-312.

Further viewing

Watch a video on women in agricultural extension, here.

Our younger readers December 18th, 2016 by

Some countries with deeply contrasting linguistic histories are now becoming literate in similar ways. In Nepal and Malawi reading is becoming more common, as governments set up more schools and encourage girls and boys to attend.

Unlike most of Africa and Asia, Nepal was never formally colonized. The British were content to recognize the kingdom and install a British ministry in 1840 to advise on key issues, especially foreign policy. And the British accepted Nepali soldiers, the famous Gurkhas, into the Indian army.

Malawi was colonized, but fairly late. The Scottish missionary-explorer, David Livingstone ambled across what is now Malawi in 1861. The first traders, the African Lakes Company, set up shop in 1878, in Blantyre, and military conquest was complete by 1890.

A country’s literary tradition can be old or recent. Nepali has been written from the very start, since the language first evolved from Sanskrit, which itself had a sophisticated writing system by the second millennium BCE. The languages of Malawi (then called “Nyasaland”) were not written until the 1870s when Scottish missionaries devised scripts (“alphabets”) to translate the Bible. By the 1890s children were learning to read and write in mission schools. In Malawi, a literary heritage of thousands of years had been compressed into a single generation.

juno-gaha-reads-mites-pamphletAn old literary tradition is not necessarily a democratic one. In Nepal, as late as 1900, only 5% of the population could read. Government schools gradually improved. By 1951 the literacy rate was 39%, rising to 58% in 1991. Some of this effort was motivated by a policy to promote the Nepali language at the expense of the others spoken in the country, many of which are entirely unrelated to Nepali, linguistically.

In Malawi there were never enough mission schools to meet the demand from parents who wanted their children to study. Government schools expanded, especially after independence in 1963. The languages of Malawi are all Bantu tongues, and are all fairly closely related to one another. People learn to read in their own language (e.g. Tumbuka or Yao), besides Chichewa, which is the de facto national language.

The world literacy rate (the percentage of people over 15-years-old who can read), is 86% (83% for women). Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have some of the lowest literacy rates in the world: 65% for Nepal and almost the same for Malawi at 66%. Fewer women are literate, 55% in Nepal and just slightly more, 59%, in Malawi.
I was in Nepal and Malawi this year, and while the school systems are not over-funded, in both countries I was pleasantly surprised to see people reading, even in the countryside. Even people who didn’t go to school usually have someone in the household who can read a document to them. In Nepal, shops advertise their wares in writing on the storefront, and in Malawi, roadside grain buyers scrawl their maize and bean prices onto signs, to attract farmer-sellers.

buying-maize-and-beans-chichewa-languageIn both countries, when extensionists give farmers a piece of paper, their first reaction is to read it. There is room for improvement, e.g. schools need to be better resourced and more girls and women need to be included, but even in some of the poorest parts of the world many more people can read now than in their parents’ day. This is an opportunity for communicating agriculture. It means that agencies can write fact sheets for farmers, as long as the writers can avoid jargon. While videos are an important way of reaching women, minorities and other disadvantaged groups, even a DVD of farmer learning videos is enhanced with a bit of writing, such as a cover with a title, and a menu so farmers can choose the videos they want to watch.

World literacy rates have improved so fast that it is much more common for young people to read than for elders (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2016). Let’s make sure that this generation of literate farmers has something appropriate to read about agricultural technology.

Further reading

McCracken, John 2012 A History of Malawi: 1859-1966. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: James Currey. 485 pp.

Roser, Max and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina 2016 “Literacy”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/

Whelpton, John 2005 A History of Nepal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 296 pp.

How to feed babies August 28th, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

While writing a video script, the author must find out what motivates people, as we were reminded recently while visiting Bolivian farmers to get their ideas on childhood malnutrition.

wawa k'irusqaAgriculture and nutrition are linked in unusual ways. A 2012 study by Cornell University nutritionist Andy Jones, and colleagues, in northern PotosĂ­, Bolivia, found that boosting farm production came at a cost. If new farming techniques increase the work load of young mothers, they may not have the time to feed their youngest children often enough. The toddlers can suffer if their mothers are working too hard and too long.

One of Jones’s colleagues in that study was an experienced and perceptive Bolivian nutritionist named Yesmina Cruz. She said that in this part of the Andes, some local beliefs were harmful for babies. For example, mothers believed that if the babies went without food when they were small, they would grow up to be able to withstand hunger when they were big. So the mothers would avoid giving the breast to their newborns for several days, until after losing the colostrum, the rich, yellowish milk that should be a baby’s first, nutritious meal. The mothers did not feed their babies often enough and would often start them too soon on supplementary foods, like soups or mush.

Younger mothers are changing how they bring up their children, but some of the old ideas persist.

Early in August, I had a chance to work with Yesmina again, as she wrote a fact sheet and a video script on mother’s milk. The first day of the course, Yesmina outlined her main suggestions: start breastfeeding on the day the baby is born, give mothers’ milk (and nothing else) for the first six months, and keep breastfeeding the baby for at least the first two years.

Last week, our blog story Learning from students told about how our course starts by writing a fact sheet and taking it to a community to read.

During the script writing course, Yesmina had the wisdom to interview men too, not just mothers. But the men were less interested in reading about breastfeeding, because they saw it as women’s business.

While writing her draft video script, Yesmina visited the village of Phinkina, near Anzaldo, Cochabamba, and met with three mothers to learn more about their experiences with breastfeeding. Their children had grown up and Yesmina wanted to test some of her ideas and see how to help new mothers.

Yesmina explained that the main sign of malnutrition was that the babies were small for their age (something a mother may not always realize, especially when malnutrition is widespread). Malnutrition in toddlers can be easily avoided by proper breastfeeding. To Yesmina’s surprise, the women didn’t think it was a problem if their children were smaller than expected in their early years. “They can eat when they are youths,” one of the women explained. (Although in fact, children never fully recover from poor development in early years).

On the other hand, the mothers were obsessed with school. They wanted their kids to do well in school and to finish it.

Yesmina realized that talking about school could be a way to get moms, and dads, interested in milk for babies, by explaining that mother’s milk helps children grow healthier minds and bodies, so they can do better in school.

By the end of the week, the script had grown from three topics to five:

  1. Eat well when you are pregnant. Here too it will be crucial to get men motivated, to encourage their wives, daughters and daughters-in-law to eat better food during pregnancy, and to help them ease up on their workload.
  2. Start breast feeding as soon as the baby is born.
  3. Only give the baby breast milk until 6 months of age.
  4. Introduce supplementary feeding at 6 months.
  5. Continue breast feeding until the baby is at least 2 years old.

Now the draft script explains that colostrum is the first food that feeds the baby’s brain and that babies who are well fed on breast milk will grow up to be children who perform better in school.

A simple task, writing some tips for breastfeeding, turns out to be more complex (but also more rewarding) when the author invites members of her target audience to read and comment on an early draft. Academics are used to sharing drafts of their papers with colleagues. When writing for a popular audience, it can be just as useful to share drafts with community members.

Further reading

Cruz Agudo, Yesmina, Andrew D. Jones, Peter R. Berti, Sergio Larrea Macías 2010 “Lactancia Materna, Alimentación Complementaria y Malnutrición Infantil en los Andes de Bolivia.” Archivos Latinoamericanos de Nutrición 60(1):7-14. http://www.scielo.org.ve/pdf/alan/v60n1/art02.pdf

Jones, Andrew D., Yesmina Cruz Agudo, Lindsay Galway, Jeffery Bentley, & Per Pinstrup-Andersen 2012 “Heavy Agricultural Workloads and Low Crop Diversity are Strong Barriers to Improving Child Feeding Practices in the Bolivian Andes.” Social Science & Medicine 75 (9):1673-1684.http://www.jefferybentley.com/Heavy%20Agricultural%20Workloads.pdf

“Learning to eat,” a one-page summary of Jones et al. http://www.agroinsight.com/downloads/in-the-field/summary-Learning-to-eat-Extension-Methods-4.pdf

Further viewing

You can watch a video on how to make food for toddlers from ingredients found in a West African village at: http://www.accessagriculture.org/enriching-porridge

And a video on helping women recover from childbirth at:




28 de agosto del 2016

Por Jeff Bentley

La autora de un guion de video debe averiguar qué motiva a la gente, el cual volvimos a acordarnos recientemente al visitar a productores bolivianos para conocer sus ideas sobre la desnutrición infantil.

baby and mom in Yurac CanchaLa agricultura y la nutrición están vinculadas de maneras complicadas. Un estudio en el 2012 por el nutricionista de la Cornell University, Andy Jones, y colegas en el Norte de Potosí, Bolivia, encontró que un aumento en la producción agrícola tenía un costo. Si nuevas técnicas en el agro aumentan la carga de trabajo de las madres jóvenes, ellas no siempre tienen tiempo para dar de comer con suficiente frecuencia a sus niños más

pequeños. Los chiquillos pueden sufrir si sus mamás están trabajando muy duro y por mucho tiempo.

Una de las colegas de Jones en ese estudio era Yesmina Cruz, una nutricionista boliviana experimentada y sensible. Ella dice que en esta parte de los Andes, algunas creencias locales son dañinas para los bebés. Por ejemplo, las mamás creían que si a sus bebés les faltaba comida cuando eran pequeños, llegarían a poder aguantar el hambre cuando fueran grandes. Así que las mamás evitaban dar pecho a sus recién nacidos durante varios días, hasta perder el calostro, la rica y amarillenta leche que debería ser la primera, nutritiva comida del bebé. Las madres no daban de comer a menudo y muchas empezaron demasiado temprano a dar alimentos suplementarios, como las sopas o papillas.

Hoy en días las mamás jóvenes están cambiando su manera de criar a sus hijos, pero algunas de las ideas viejas persisten.

A principios de agosto, tuve la oportunidad de volver a trabajar con Yesmina, mientras ella escribía una hoja volante y un guion de video sobre la leche materna. El primer día del curso, Yesmina bosquejó sus sugerencias principales: empezar a dar pecho el día que el bebé nace, dar leche materna (solamente) durante los primeros seis meses, y seguir amamantando al bebé por lo menos durante sus primeros dos años de vida.

La semana pasada nuestro blog, Aprender de los estudiantes, contĂł como nuestro curso empieza con la redacciĂłn de una hoja volante que luego se lleva a la comunidad para leer.

Durante el curso de la redacción de guiones, Yesmina tuvo la sabiduría de entrevistar a hombres también, no solo a las madres. Pero los hombres tenían poco interés en la leche materna, la cual vieron como un asunto de las mujeres.

Mientras escribía el borrador de su guion de video, Yesmina visitó la comunidad de Phinkina, cerca de Anzaldo, Cochabamba, donde se reunió con tres madres para aprender sobre sus experiencias con la leche materna. Sus hijos ya eran grandes y Yesmina quería sondear algunas de sus ideas para ver cómo ayudar a las mamás jóvenes.

Yesmina explicó que el principal señal de la desnutrición es que los bebés son pequeños para su edad (y una madre no siembre se da cuenta de eso, sobre todo si la desnutrición es común). Es fácil evitar la desnutrición infantil con el buen uso de la leche materna. Yesmina se sorprendió que las mujeres no pensaron que era problema si sus hijos eran muy pequeños en sus primeros años. “Pueden comer cuando son jóvenes,” explicó una de las mujeres. (Aunque en realidad, los niños nunca se recuperan completamente del mal desarrollo en sus primeros años de vida).

Sin embargo, las madres estaban obsesionadas con el colegio. QuerĂ­an que sus hijos fueran buenos alumnos y que terminaran el colegio.

Yesmina se dio cuenta que el hablar del colegio podría ser una manera de que los padres se interesaran en la leche para los bebés, al explicar que la leche materna ayuda a los niños a tener mentes y cuerpos sanos, para poder ser exitosos en el colegio.

Para el fin de la semana, el guion ya no era de tres tĂłpicos sino de cinco:

  1. Comer bien cuando estás embarazada. Aquí también será crucial involucrar a los hombres, para que apoyen a sus esposas, hijas y nueras para que coman mejor durante el embarazo, y para ayudarles a reducir su carga de trabajo.
  2. Empezar a dar pecho inmediatamente que el bebé nazca.
  3. Al bebé solo darle leche materna hasta los 6 meses de edad.
  4. Empezar con la alimentaciĂłn suplementaria a partir de los 6 meses.
  5. Continuar dando pecho hasta que el bebé cumpla por lo menos 2 años.

Ahora el borrador del guion explica que el calostro es el primer alimento para el cerebro del bebé y que los bebés bien alimentados con la leche materna llegarán a ser niños exitosos en el colegio.

Una tarea sencilla, como escribir algunas sugerencias para la leche materna, resulta ser más compleja (además de más enriquecedora) cuando la autora invita a miembros de su público a leer y comentar sobre el primer borrador. Los académicos están acostumbrados a compartir borradores de sus artículos con sus colegas. Cuando uno escribe para una audiencia popular, igualmente puede ser útil compartir los borradores con algunos miembros de la comunidad.

Lectura adicional

Cruz Agudo, Yesmina, Andrew D. Jones, Peter R. Berti, Sergio Larrea Macías 2010 “Lactancia Materna, Alimentación Complementaria y Malnutrición Infantil en los Andes de Bolivia.” Archivos Latinoamericanos de Nutrición 60(1):7-14. http://www.scielo.org.ve/pdf/alan/v60n1/art02.pdf

Jones, Andrew D., Yesmina Cruz Agudo, Lindsay Galway, Jeffery Bentley, & Per Pinstrup-Andersen 2012 “Heavy Agricultural Workloads and Low Crop Diversity are Strong Barriers to Improving Child Feeding Practices in the Bolivian Andes.” Social Science & Medicine 75 (9):1673-1684.http://www.jefferybentley.com/Heavy%20Agricultural%20Workloads.pdf

“Learning to eat,” un resumen de una página de Jones et al. http://www.agroinsight.com/downloads/in-the-field/summary-Learning-to-eat-Extension-Methods-4.pdf

Para mirar videos

Se puede ver un video sobre cómo hacer papillas para niños chiquitos usando ingredientes que se encuentran en una aldea de Africa Occidental aquí:

Y un video sobre cómo ayudar a las mujeres a recuperarse después de dar a luz aquí:


Listening to what women don’t say July 17th, 2016 by

What women don’t say can be as important as what they do say. As I learned recently in Nigeria.

Cassava is a crop that is native to the Amazon Basin, but spread in early colonial times to much of tropical Africa. The hardy cassava is a short, woody shrub that can live for several years, thanks to its large roots which absorb water and nutrients, which helps the plant to survive the dry season.

Villagers love cassava because of its flexibility. People can harvest the plants one or few at a time, as the household needs food. But cassava can also be tricky. Once the roots are harvested they are fairly perishable and should be prepared into food fairly soon.

Moyo Olorunlagbe toasting gariDuring a recent fieldwork sponsored by IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture), we found that, in Southwest and North Nigeria, men grow much of the cassava and women detoxify it by making it into several products, especially one called gari.  To make gari, women peel huge piles of roots, one at a time, with a kitchen knife. Then the roots are grated in little motorized grills, and the mash is fermented in sacks, and then the moisture is squeezed out. Men may help with the grating and pressing out the moisture (often for a small fee). Then the women toast the mash into gari on a metal pan over a hot wood fire, continuously stirring the mash with a wooden paddle. The women also collect the firewood. Women can sell gari in village markets to buyers, usually women, who bulk the gari and take it to the cities.

unloading cassava from motorcycleTo get cassava to transform into gari, Nigerian women use several strategies. They grow some cassava; they get some from their husbands and they can buy roots in the village. In the photo, a man sells a motorcycle load of cassava to a neighbor who will process it. Within four to five days women can turn the cassava into a bit of cash—which they can spend or keep.

In the villages across Nigeria my colleagues and I interviewed the men and the women separately. Some of the men told us that, among other things, they needed what they called “ready markets,” meaning that the men wanted to be able to sell their cassava  roots raw, in local markets, for a profit.

In separate meetings, the women had plenty to say, but they never mentioned markets. On the other hand, the women wanted cassava that was easier to peel.

If we had interviewed men and women together, the women would not have bothered to contradict the men, when they asked for better markets for cassava.

The women did not ask for a ready market for cassava, because they already have one. They can always carry a basin full of gari down to the village market and sell it. Even landless women can buy cassava and transform it to make a living, working at home.

Men and women may even have conflicting interests. Higher prices for raw roots might benefit men, but could even harm the women, who buy the roots as raw material to make traditional foods like gari, fufu (with the consistency of mashed potatoes) and abacha (almost a kind of noodle).

In Nigeria, women are quietly feeding the nation; they are happy with the market just the way it is. That is why women don’t ask for ready markets. What women don’t say can be as important as what they do say. To learn women’s specific views and perspectives, we were reminded one more time that it is important to interview men and women in separate groups.


Tessy Madu and Olamide Olaosebikan held the meetings with the women. Adetunji Olarewaju facilitated the parallel meetings with the men.

The field work mentioned in this blog was part of the IITA lead Cassava Monitoring Survey project funded by institutions including RTB (CGIAR research program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas) and IITA.

Weight watchers January 18th, 2015 by

A lot of donor aid is spent on strengthening farmer groups, from the local to the regional level. Another fashionable topic is value chains.

Within farmer groups tensions inevitably emerge sooner or later.

The Maisha Bora women’s group in Tinganga village, central Kenya, is no exception. They started in 2012 with fifteen members, but two years later only ten members remain.

“We have developed clear rules to which all members have to abide,” says the chairperson Margaret Ruhiu. “From the initial group some members left. We are stronger now, as the remaining members all collaborate well.”

When probing about the type of tensions they have faced over the years, the women explain how initially they bought bananas from group members and nearby farmers by the bunch. Some women brought small bunches, others large ones, and all would get paid the same price, no matter the size.

I have seen many examples of farmer cooperatives and other groups that failed as soon as the outside facilitator stopped visiting the group. In part this is because the outsider can be an honest broker who helps to mediate conflicts as they come up. Once that support is gone, the group dissolves in bickering. In this case, the women were able to come up with their own ways of easing tensions.

For the Maisha Bora women’s group the size of the bunches varied so greatly that it created tensions. But this is now history: they now buy bunches by the kilogram after they bought a scale to weigh the bananas.

When individual members sell bananas to the group, they may be paid for the bananas the week after, once the banana flour has been sold. Other farmers are paid on the spot.

Contributions in labour are another potential area for tension. But the group also found a solution. For processing the bananas into flour, all members contribute labour equally. The time that they work is properly recorded, so that there is no space for misuse.

The money the members make by selling banana flour is put into a bank account, and supplements their weekly group savings. Each year, every member receives an equal dividend.

Trust can go a long way, but simple tools (such as weighing scales), proper rules and recording add just enough objectivity to discourage free-riders and to reward everyone fairly for their contributions. Organized groups of smallholders can function smoothly, but the members have to find ways to keep everyone honest.

For other examples of functioning farmer groups see our book on African Seed Enterprises, which you can download from http://agroinsight.com/books.php.

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